Pluto may have 10 or more moons in orbit, according to a new simulation by scientists at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics.
A computer simulation, previously designed to study the formation of planets and other icy objects in the Kuiper Belt out beyond Neptune, was used to do calculations regarding the formation of Pluto and its moons.
“It’s hard to say how many there are,” the researchers said. “As it’s difficult to simulate collisions among these tiny satellites. There could be anywhere from one to more than 10 objects lurking beyond Hydra’s orbit.”
So what does it mean for NASA? The discovery of Pluto having moons could make it difficult for the team planning NASA’s New Horizons mission, which is set to take the first-ever up-close look at the Pluto system in July 2015. After Pluto’s fifth known moon, a small satellite known as P5, was discovered last year, officials said they may need to redraw the spacecraft’s path to avoid such obstacles.
“It has our attention,” New Horizons principal investigator Alan Stern told Space.com via email, referring to the new research. He added he hasn’t thoroughly analyzed the work yet.
How did Pluto end up with more than one moon? According to Space.com, a dust cloud surrounded the dwarf planet in it’s early years, but researchers aren’t sure where that dust came from. Even though they may have some ideas.
“Pluto’s largest moon Charon, for example, might have slammed into the dwarf planet, producing debris. Alternatively, Pluto’s gravity could have swept up dust lingering from the protoplanetary disk that formed the solar system. However the debris appeared, researchers believe Pluto’s four known smaller moons — P4, Nix, P5 and Hydra — gradually formed as the dust collided and clumped together, forming bigger and bigger objects,” reports Space.com.
A little bizarre since larger planets like Mercury and Venus have no moons and with Mars having two.
Pluto moons would each measure just 0.6 miles to 1.8 miles (1 to 3 kilometers) across. That’s too small to be seen by even the largest telescopes, and just barely detected by the Hubble Space Telescope.
Pluto’s Newly Discovered Moon, P5
NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope has returned images of a tiny satellite, six to 15 miles across, orbiting our solar system’s far-flung and much-debated dwarf planet. Circling Pluto with its four previously discovered lunar siblings. The tiny moon has been given the catchy appellation P5.
Pluto and moons Charon, Nix, and Hydra in profile
Animation of Pluto, its large moon Charon, and small moons Nix (P2) and Hydra (P1), which were discovered with the Hubble Space Telescope in 2005. The New Horizons spacecraft will fly by Pluto in July 2014.
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